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Bracken’s Kitchen helps Huntington Beach chefs whip up a passion

Bracken’s Kitchen works every day at fighting food insecurity in Orange County.

(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)


The Garden Grove-based nonprofit’s rescued food and community feeding programs are well-known and well-received. About 500,000 people in the county — roughly one in six — suffer from food insecurity, chef Bill Bracken said, a number that’s gone up since the pandemic.


Bracken never necessarily thought a culinary school would be another piece to the puzzle. He has an interesting story, as a former chef at Peninsula Beverly Hills and the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach who turned to the nonprofit world to make a difference.


Bracken began to realize that a culinary training program could be beneficial, especially for at-risk young people who couldn’t afford the tens of thousands of dollars that culinary school usually costs.


“We realized that what we had been doing just wasn’t doing enough,” he said. “So we wrote out a whole curriculum and we’re running more of a school than I ever really imagined, but it works great. It’s hugely beneficial for the students, needless to say, and workforce development is really something that’s needed to give people a path out of poverty.”


(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)


The Bracken’s Kitchen culinary training program currently includes up to 16 aspiring chefs, in two cohorts. Food 4 Less/Foods Co. has donated $100,000 since last year, as part of its Zero Hunger | Zero Waste program, to support the Bracken’s Kitchen food pantry and empower through the training program.


Two Huntington Beach residents, Matt Plonski and Lukas Romero, would certainly sing the program’s praises. On Tuesday they finished the 18 weeks of training, making a final meal that would be critiqued by tasters who came in.


Plonski, 22, went with nods to his heritage, cooking two Polish dishes of cabbage rolls and nothing soup and a Mexican dish of spaghetti, with tomato sauce, sour cream and queso fresco. Romero, 21, opted to prepare spinach artichoke dip, an entree of beef Wellington and a dessert of chocolate soufflé.


The food choices, though, aren’t as important as the choice to follow their passions.

“I find such joy in seeing these students truly blossom,” Bracken said. “Obviously, so much of what we do is about more than culinary arts, it’s case management and encouragement, building up each person’s self-confidence.”


Plonski, a Marina High School graduate, has been helped by Huntington Beach-based nonprofit Robyne’s Nest since his junior year of high school, when he met their criteria of an at-risk youth.


He’s already been working at the local Great Wolf Lodge as a cook for more than a year, but the training program has helped him take things to the next level.


(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)


“This program meant a lot,” he said. “I was never good at school and I was always skeptical about my own expertise, my own cooking ability. Having them give me praise was never something that I thought would happen. To me, I kind of needed it, in the sense that I need to understand why I was so passionate in the first place. Really, I like giving to people.”


Romero struggled during the pandemic without many people to talk to. He lived with his father, who was an essential worker, so he had to keep a distance from him as well. He dealt with depression and used drinking as a way to try to mask the pain, he said.


But his cousin had worked at Bracken’s Kitchen and passed the word about the culinary training program. Now Romero has people to talk to, satisfying his inquisitive and personable nature, and he’s on a path of sobriety.


“It’s nice to be in a program that’s free and that’s helping people and that’s not wasting food and that’s paying you,” Romero said. “It’s like the dream come true of somebody who’s on a budget and trying to go to culinary school. It’s fulfilling to me to know that we get to practice our knife cuts on carrots, onions, celery, whatever, and none of it goes to waste.”


Students are provided a minimum wage salary during training. Bracken’s Kitchen will continue to pay them during a four-week externship, Bracken said, when the chefs are paired with local restaurants.


(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)


Plonski and Romero will start soon at Duke’s Restaurant, right next to the Huntington Beach Pier. Suzanne Larkin, who works there, is a longtime friend of Bracken’s.

“There’s a lot of different programs out there that give a great introduction to culinary arts, but no one walks away with any tangible skills that they can use,” Bracken said. “We’re not going to teach people pastries, we’re not showing them how to decorate a cake, we’re not showing them how to make soufflés. We want our students that graduate to be able to hang and bang, as they say, as an entry-level cook at any restaurant in Orange County.”


The hope is that Duke’s will hire the two Surf City residents at the end of their four weeks in the kitchen, Romero said.


Either way, they are set on a bright course for their futures, which is one of the reasons Bracken loves the program so much.


The first student in the reimagined culinary training program, he said, was a woman named Maria who worked a fast-food job and was living in a halfway house.


“We realized that some of these students are struggling to get by,” Bracken said. “That’s part of the cycle of poverty, when you have to work just to barely get by, and you never have the chance to learn and grow and move up.”


Three graduates of the culinary training program are now employees of Bracken’s Kitchen, he added.


From the Daily Pilot - By Matt Szabo

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